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Esports Fighting Games

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate: Why Balance is So Hard

Achieving proper balance in a game is a long journey. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate achieves arguably the most balanced fighting game at launch. However, there are still long ways to go before the game becomes perfect. Tweaking even the smallest element inside a fighting game can change everything.

As an example, when players tried transitioning from Melee to Brawl, a lot of them felt disappointed. The game’s direction completely changed and left the competitive scene with a slow and very different game to the one they were used to. Some felt betrayed, and others even went ahead and skipped the game as a whole.

When talking about the games as a whole, changes to the gameplay left the fanbase with polarizing opinions. Mechanics that were unfriendly to competitive play (namely tripping and slower physics, among others) impacted the feeling of playing Smash.

Now with characters, the dilemma changes. Inside a game, characters serve as tools for players to express themselves within the game. Any change to them could come with major consequences.

Finding Balance

History confirms the damage that comes with a lack of balance. Bayonetta (arguably) killed Smash 4. Meta Knight killed Brawl. Melee is sometimes called Fox simulator.

Balancing Smash is hard
Bayonetta consumed Smash 4. She plagued tournaments and eventually led to the game’s downfall – Image: Shoryuken

When looking at Smash, its components add an additional level of difficulty. Traditional fighting games possess very linear combo structures. Players are bestowed creativity in how they play in these more traditional fighting games through what combos players will through at certain times and with certain openings. This makes balancing these games comparatively straightforward. Tweak a number and an overpowered combo ceases to be.

When looking at Smash, however, there is so much more in the table. Air dodging, rolling, directional influence, ledge play, etc. -all of these elements give Smash a whole new layer to take under account.

In Smash 4, the addition a character like Bayonetta gave an unfair advantage over many characters. Her combo structure rewarded players for taking little to no risks. Pair that up with a crazy powerful counter and an ability to dodge a move as it hits, and we have a polarizing character.

Another good example lies in Greninja. The “Better nerf Greninja” meme exists out of a series of poor balancing decisions taken throughout Smash 4. Patches repeatedly gave nerfs to Greninja – a character that didn’t necessarily need nor was requested to have as many nerfs as he got.

Taking it Slow

In Ultimate’s own patch 2.0.0 there were signs of a decrease in the balancing pace. Changes came out, but none of them significantly affected the metagame. This may be because the game now has a dedicated balancing team.

Balancing Smash is hard
Sheik suffered from a series of nerfs throught Smash 4 that made her relevancy drop in Smash 4 – Image: Shoryuken

However, taking a look at the patch shows signs of a bright future for Ultimate. Instead of overly toning down the most popular characters, they buffed some of the weakest links in the roster.

This approach really gives room for the team to create a roster where all characters stand at the same level. Achieving this level of balance sounds like a dream, mostly because it’s an uphill climb that will take a lot of work.

A small tweak to a mid-tier character can make their potential skyrocket. Taking him all the way to the top of everyone’s tier list.

Changes can also create gimmicks. A good example shows in how Bowser and Donkey Kong relied on their combo game off of their up throws. Changes allowed these grabs to serves as strong combo tools, essentially defining both characters’ presences in the meta.

At the current moment, Ultimate shows signs of having no powerful gimmicks. This shows how much care the balancing team has for the game. If they keep this slow but calculated pace of change, then the changes they do¬†make to the game will (hopefully) ensure that the game’s roster will remain among the most balanced in fighting game history.

Wrapping Up on Changes

For now, the trust of the community lays on the balancing team. Everyone has some changes in mind for their particular characters. Some wanted changes are minor, others are gigantic. In the end, though, players just want their characters to be able to compete and take them towards victory.

As a reminder, most characters right now can compete (except for Little Mac and Kirby). Hard work will do so much more than a handful of buffs.

Now let’s see where this game heads in 3.0.0 that’s due this coming April. With the addition of yet another new character, the future of the game’s balance will be put to the test. Let’s see what the game’s balance team has been cooking up for us then.


Featured image courtesy of Nintendo

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